WHEELING, W.Va. — Five West Liberty Hilltoppers reached double-figure scoring in a statement and runaway 112-82 win over Fairmont State in Sunday’s MEC Tournament title game at WesBanco Arena.
The Hilltoppers have won three of the last four MEC title games, including two straight. West Liberty also now holds a 2-1 series lead against Fairmont State after dropping the first matchup between the two teams by 25 points on January 14.
“I came here this morning for our 10 a.m. shootaround, and we stretch above before we shoot,” said West Liberty head coach Ben Howlett. “These guys weren’t saying a word to each other. They are normally goofing around while stretching. They were locked in from the morning on.
“[Fairmont State] is a great team. They will play next week, and it would not surprise me to see them win a few NCAA [Atlantic] Regional tournament games.”
West Liberty earned the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Regional tournament. The Hilltoppers will face Pitt-Johnstown in the quarterfinal round at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Fairmont State is the No. 5 seed and the Falcons will face Virginia Union.
West Liberty entered Sunday’s championship game, having shot 50 percent or better in its first two MEC Tournament games. The Hilltoppers finished Sunday’s contest shooting 51 percent, the 15th time WLU shot 50 percent or better this season.
“I thought today was the perfect storm for us,” Howlett noted. “We shot and passed the ball at an incredibly high level. It seemed like every bounce went our way. Sometimes those games happen, and we have been on the other side. [Fairmont State] punked us back in January at their place, and I think we remembered that.”
West Liberty’s Bryce Butler, a two-time MEC Player of the Year, led all scorers with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Butler was named the MVP of the conference tournament after averaging 21 points and 13 rebounds in WLU’s three games.
“We do not want to take winning for granted,” Butler said. “The same thing happened last year, and we went to the NCAA Tournament and laid an egg. I still have a sour taste in my mouth. Our focus now is next week.”
Neither team led by more than four points over the first 6 minutes. Fairmont State’s last lead of the game came following a George Mangas layup to make it 11-10 with 13:56 remaining.
West Liberty (28-3) responded with multiple scoring runs while holding FSU scoreless, including a 7-0 spurt that allowed the Hilltoppers to lead 26-16 following a Steve Cannady three-pointer.
Cannady, a Mercyhurst transfer, finished with 19 points and five triples.
“I was trying to play my game,” Cannady said. “I wanted to push the pace and find the open player because when we find the open player, we are the best team in the country. We made good shots into great ones.”
Fairmont State (24-7) cut West Liberty’s lead to 34-24 following a Briggs Parris layup with 6:16 remaining in the half. However, West Liberty quickly regained momentum by scoring six unanswered points from Chaz Hinds, Ben Sarson, and Cannady.
The Hilltoppers left their foot on the gas in the final 6 minutes by scoring 13 of the last 22 points in the first half to hold a 53-33 lead at the break.
Fairmont State’s Isaiah Sanders was held scoreless in the first half but scored four of the Falcons’ first 10 points after halftime. Sanders finished with only seven points, snapping a 25-game streak with double figures.
Meanwhile, West Liberty’s Butler and Cannady accounted for straight points, including back-to-back triples from Butler in 24 seconds, early in the second half.
Nine Hilltoppers scored in the second half as WLU was clicking on all cylinders, which included Butler and Sarson combining for 26 of the team’s 59 points.
WLU assisted on 69 percent of its field goals. West Liberty’s 29 assists were the ninth time the Hilltoppers posted 25 or more assists this season.
“That is West Liberty basketball,” Howlett recalled. “We do not recruit guys that are off-the-dribble shooters. All of our guys can do that, but that is not what we are looking for in our offense. We want clean shots with guys in a rebounding position. Today those shots were falling, but at other times they were not.”
WLU’s Malik McKinney finished with 16 points by shooting 67 percent. Sarson and Hinds combined for 28 points, including Hinds’s 15 points off the bench.
West Liberty made 18-of-42 threes and held a 48-40 rebounding edge.
Five Falcons scored in double-figures, including Mangas and Tariq Woody, both of whom finished with 12.